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The Propaganda Multiplier: How Global News Agencies and Western Media Report on Geopolitics

“What the agency does not report, does not take place”

INSIGHT — It is one of the most important aspects of our media system, and yet hardly known to the public: most of the international news coverage in Western media is provided by only three global news agencies based in New York, London and Paris.

The Propaganda Multiplier: Governments, military and intelligence services using global news agencies to disseminate their messages to a worldwide audience.

The key role played by these agencies means Western media often report on the same topics, even using the same wording. In addition, governments, military and intelligence services use these global news agencies as multipliers to spread their messages around the world.

A study of the Syria war coverage by nine leading European newspapers clearly illustrates these issues: 78% of all articles were based in whole or in part on agency reports, yet 0% on investigative research. Moreover, 82% of all opinion pieces and interviews were in favor of the US and NATO intervention, while propaganda was attributed exclusively to the opposite side.

“The Invisible Nerve Center of the Media System”

So what are the names of these agencies that are “always at the source of the story”? There are now only three global news agencies left:

  1. The American Associated Press (AP) with over 4000 employees worldwide. The AP belongs to US media companies and has its main editorial office in New York. AP news is used by around 12,000 international media outlets, reaching more than half of the world’s population every day.
  2. The quasi-governmental French Agence France-Presse (AFP) based in Paris and with around 4000 employees. The AFP sends over 3000 stories and photos every day to media all over the world.
  3. The British agency Reuters in London, which is privately owned and employs just over 3000 people. Reuters was acquired in 2008 by Canadian media entrepreneur Thomson – one of the 25 richest people in the world – and merged into Thomson Reuters, headquartered in New York.
The three global news agencies Reuters, AFP and AP, and the three national agencies of the German-speaking countries of Austria (APA), Germany (DPA) and Switzerland (SDA).

In addition, many countries run their own news agencies. These include, for instance, the German DPA, the Austrian APA, and the Swiss SDA. When it comes to international news, however, national agencies usually rely on the three global agencies and simply copy and translate their reports.

Wolfgang Vyslozil, former managing director of the Austrian APA, described the key role of news agencies with these words: “News agencies are rarely in the public eye. Yet they are one of the most influential and at the same time one of the least known media types. They are key institutions of substantial importance to any media system. They are the invisible nerve center that connects all parts of this system.” (Segbers 2007, p.10)

“What the agency does not report, does not take place”

The central role of news agencies also explains why, in geopolitical conflicts, most media use the same original sources. In the Syrian war, for example, the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” – a dubious one-man organization based in London –  featured prominently. The media rarely inquired directly at this “Observatory”, as its operator was in fact difficult to reach, even for journalists.

Rather, the “Observatory” delivered its stories to global agencies, which then forwarded them to thousands of media outlets, which in turn “informed” hundreds of millions of readers and viewers worldwide. The reason why the agencies, of all places, referred to this strange “Observatory” in their reporting – and who really financed it – is a question that was rarely asked.

The former chief editor of the German news agency DPA, Manfred Steffens, therefore states in his book “The Business of News”:

“A news story does not become more correct simply because one is able to provide a source for it. It is indeed rather questionable to trust a news story more just because a source is cited. () Behind the protective shield such a ’source‘ means for a story, some people are inclined to spread rather adventurous things, even if they themselves have legitimate doubts about their correctness; the responsibility, at least morally, can always be attributed to the cited source.” (Steffens 1969, p. 106)

Syria War Coverage Case Study: Figure above shows the composition of the 381 articles for nine newspapers analyzed in total. These papers were: For Germany: Die Welt, Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ); For Switzerland: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), Tagesanzeiger (TA), and Basler Zeitung (BaZ); For Austria: Standard, Kurier, and Die Presse
As can be seen, 55% of articles were news agency reports; 23% editorial reports based on agency material; 9% background reports; 10% opinions and guest comments; 2% interviews; and 0% based on investigative research.
Syria War Case Study: In the next step, central statements were used to rate the orientation of editorial opinions (28), guest comments (10) and interview partners (7) (a total of 45 articles). As Figure above shows, 82% of the contributions were generally US/NATO friendly, 16% neutral or balanced, and 2% predominantly US/NATO critical.

Dependence on global agencies is also a major reason why media coverage of geopolitical conflicts is often superficial and erratic, while historic relationships and background are fragmented or altogether absent. As put by Steffens: “News agencies receive their impulses almost exclusively from current events and are therefore by their very nature ahistoric. They are reluctant to add any more context than is strictly required.” (Steffens 1969, p. 32)

Finally, the dominance of global agencies explains why certain geopolitical issues and events – which often do not fit very well into the US/NATO narrative or are too “unimportant” – are not mentioned in our media at all: if the agencies do not report on something, then most Western media will not be aware of it. As pointed out on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the German DPA: “What the agency does not report, does not take place.” (Wilke 2000, p. 1)

Conclusion

In this case study, the geopolitical coverage in nine leading European newspapers was examined for diversity and journalistic performance using the example of the Syrian war.

The results confirm the high dependence on the global news agencies (63 to 90%, excluding commentaries and interviews) and the lack of own investigative research, as well as the rather biased commenting on events in favor of the US/NATO side (82% positive; 2% negative), whose stories were not checked by the newspapers for any propaganda.

Swiss Propaganda Research (SPR) is an independent research group investigating geopolitical propaganda in Swiss and international media. You can contact us here.

A version of the article appeared in Al-Bilad Daily English

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